Let’s make this absolutely clear from the start – Manilla Road are undisputed legends of Heavy Metal. That their name does not carry the same mainstream recognition as some of their peers should not mean that it is spoken with any less reverence. Between 1983 and 1990 – following a slightly awkward but extremely interesting two-album start – they put out a run of classic Heavy Metal albums that is almost unmatched in terms of quality, consistency and a genuine sense of the mysterious.
Since returning in 2001 with Atlantis Rising (Iron Glory) and an entirely new line-up, founding member and authentic Metal hero Mark “The Shark” Shelton has never quite reached the heights of the classic material, but has nevertheless put out some captivating and powerful material that confirms both his lifelong devotion to arcane, true Heavy Metal and his talent for creating it.
Following the previous two albums, the worthy but patchy Playground Of The Damned and 2013’s disappointingly flat Mysterium (both Shadow Kingdom), I was starting to worry that Shelton was finally losing his way. But first, Manilla Road’s greatest blessing and curse (and I know you can see what I did there) has always been the same thing – they’re absolute refusal to do things the “right” way, or to make any attempt to meet their audience half-way. It’s what invests their classic material with such charm and power, but it also leads them to settle for a muddy, washed-out production and to front out three of the least catchy songs on the album. Make it through to track four, however, and ‘The Dead Still Speak’ kicks in with riffing so primitive and ugly that it calls Hellhammer to mind – and then things get interesting.
As always, the strengths here are Shelton’s powerful riffs and distinctive vocals (complemented by Bryan “Hellroadie” Patrick since 2001, but here mostly falling into Shelton’s classic 80’s style, rather than the Death and Black Metal vocals they’ve experimented with on previous albums. There’s also a flow to the songs, a sense of continuity that extends across the tracks and makes The Blessed Curse (Golden Core) feel like an album again, rather than the disjointed collections that Playground… and Mysterium both came across as. There’s nothing “new” on here, but expecting there to be seems, frankly, unreasonable – neither Shelton nor Manilla Road have anything to prove.
Neither a full-on return to former glories nor a sign of complete redundancy, The Blessed Curse finds itself in the rather awkward position of being “just another” solid Manilla Road album – proof that this most idiosyncratic and individualistic of veteran Metal bands still has life in it, but not quite the statement of utter mastery that we hope they still have left in them. Fans will have bought it already, and won’t be disappointed, but anyone wanting to catch up on what they’ve missed would be better advised to start elsewhere.